When Is Human Cloning Unethical? When You Do THIS, For Starters…

Coming attraction at the San Diego Zoo.

Coming attraction at the San Diego Zoo.

Much of the ethics debate over cloning is and has always been pure “ick factor” confusion. Cloning is strange and unnatural, and to many people, that means it is immoral and wrong, as in, “If God had wanted us to be created from nose hairs, he wouldn’t have given us sex organs!” But there is nothing intrinsically unethical about cloning. The problem is that there are many theoretical applications of cloning that are monstrous (See: “The Island”), and too many scientists whose attitude is, “Why not?”

It is difficult to imagine a more perfect example of this than the news that Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church is plotting to create a Neanderthal human, if he can find, in his words, “an adventurous female human” willing to be Mommy to Alley Oop.

The Neanderthal branch of the human ancestor tree fell off 33,000 years ago, but Church claims that his analysis of Neanderthal genetic code using samples from their bones is complete enough to reconstruct their DNA. He would, a la Jurassic Park, and we all know how well THAT turned out) artificially create new Neanderthal DNA using the genetic code found in fossil remains, then inject it into stem cells. These would be injected into cells from a human embryo. He believes that the altered stem cells will program the development of the hybrid embryo to become a Neanderthal, and not a modern human.

It is possible, despite the over-heated media reports, that the good professor was just talking hypothetically, and will not soon be shoutiing, “It’s ALIVE!” with his eyes ablaze. There’s nothing unethical about that, except that it hasn’t been reported that he uttered the key words, “But of course that would be wrong.” This is troubling, because his plan, or scheme, or whatever it is, would be so undeniably unethical if it were ever executed. It is at least debatable (for some) whether altering human embryo cells to change the resulting human being into something less human is unethical (since our society has no trouble with killing human embryos, turning them into Neanderthals, human slugs or flying monkeys seems a lesser indignity), but there can be no question that creating a variant on a human being for the sole purpose of study, exhibition, or “just to see what happens” is cruelty personified, and a bulls-eye violation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, using one human life  to accomplish another’s objective. This is “Frankenstein,” my friends, and any scientist or professor (or “adventurous human female”) who can’t see that fact  is dangerous.

One remedy would be to require such ethically-unhinged individuals to watch the movie of “Jurassic Park”—which is actually more concerned with ethics than the book, though novelist Michael Crichton wrote both—as many times as I’ve seen it. In particular, they should be required to view the scene where “chaotician” Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, argues with the creator of the park, John  Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and explains what is wrong with the attitude of the scientists who have cloned velociraptors and T-Rexes  as theme park attractions :

John Hammond: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Neanderthals were beaten and driven to extinction by our superior ancestors, and now Church wants to bring that defeated and handicapped species back into a world it is not equipped to cope with because we can, and because it would be cool. Never mind the Jurassic Park scenario, or even “Planet of the Apes.” The ethical problem with Professor Church’s idea isn’t that it might go horribly wrong.

It is that it might be successful.

UPDATE: Church now says he was misquoted due to poor translation. Maybe. And Maybe Harvard told him he was embarrassing the University, and to start spinning. “I was mistranslated is even better than the old stand-by, “I was taken out of context,” because it’s impossible to check. The ethical issue isn’t altered one way or the other.


Pointer:Daily Mail
Facts: MIT Review

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

42 thoughts on “When Is Human Cloning Unethical? When You Do THIS, For Starters…

  1. I’m still struck by the ironic name of the scientist. If he persists in this “unGodly” adventure, then perhaps, if he cannot find a willing human female untroubled by beastiality-by-proxie, he will find another species of primate that will still suit the purpose.

  2. I’ll have to disagree with the characterization that “Neanderthals were beaten and driven to extinction by our superior ancestors”. Beyond the fact that “superior” and “inferior” have little to do with evolution and extinction (there is, bluntly, no such thing, and evolution is driven by adaptivity and circumstance, not some imaginary and nonexistent hierarchy), the available evidence doesn’t really suggest that they were meaningfully inferior to our ancestors.

    Neanderthals were physically stronger than us, had a larger cranial capacity (ie. brain size). They had language, tool use, and complex social groupings more than 30,000 years ago — when the primitive modern humans were hardly doing better.

    And while there are many hypotheses about their extinction, your explanation is only partially consistent with one general tract of them. The other two (one of which centers around interbreeding and absorption, the other of which deals with sheer bad luck and poor circumstance) have little in common with the idea.

    Even if we go with the competitive replacement hypothesis, the victor in a conflict isn’t necessarily the *better* party (in any meaningful way, especially by modern standards). Hell, one notable hypothesis boils down to the Neanderthals losing because they were less sexist.

    And, as that last one indicates, the competitive advantage didn’t have to be genetic. Given the timescale involved, even minor cultural advantages — which have little to do with the individuals in the culture, especially on a biological level — could have lead to the triumph of Homo sapiens sapiens over Homo sapiens neandertalensis.

  3. If an “adventurous human female” wanted a neanderthal child, would it be unethical for Dr. Church to carry through with his scheme? I can understand thinking that the creation of a neanderthal child would be wrong if it was done solely to “see what happens”, but the creation of the first IVF baby would have been wrong if it was done solely as an experiment, not because a woman genuinely wanted a child.

    By the way, why do you say that neanderthals were handicapped? There have been many times in history where one population group has replaced another in a geographical area, but that does not mean that the replaced population group was “handicapped” or that its members or that they or their descendants should not live in the modern world.

    • I’m saying that a Neanderthal would be handicapped in human society in 2013, as it is not constructed for a species that last evolved millions of years ago. Is that an unreasonable assumption?

      • Again, this isn’t accurate — neanderthals are not only not a species “last evolved millions of years ago”, they’re a species that lived contemporary with our own… and, hell, classifying them as a separate species is debatable. They only went extinct around thirty thousand years ago — practically yesterday in evolutionary time. The human (homo sapiens sapiens) genome hasn’t changed all that much in the interim.

        Yes, they would have trouble with modern society. *WE* have trouble with modern society — we didn’t evolve to live in a society like the one we have (hence things like the rampaging obesity epidemic and the unnaturalness/awkwardness of many things we have to do to keep healthy).

        Would they have more trouble with modern society than we would? Well… yes. We can firmly expect that they would get a lot of stares, be discriminated against, be subject to a lot of unhealthy attention, and so on. We would have trouble providing them with adequate medical care (since our medical studies are generally about treating humans), blood might be an issue (especially supplies for transfusion), and so on. They’d have trouble finding a mate (even if they could produce hybrid children, their facial features wouldn’t be attractive to most of the opposite sex)… etc.

        Beyond this… we don’t know. We really don’t know all that much about the neanderthals for the simple reason that we’ve never had the opportunity to interact with a living one.

          • I’m serious about my estimation of what problems a neanderthal would face, yes. I’m serious about delineating the limitations of our knowledge, yes.

            There’s a *lot* of things that we don’t know. It’s markedly common for us to not know them for ethical reasons. This is a fact commonly discussed in research ethics.

            To throw out the most common example, we don’t know how to cure a number of conditions (including cancer) because we’re unwilling to directly test promising drugs directly on humans, and use animal models to screen out the riskier drugs. Not only does this drastically raise the monetary cost of research (in an ironic twist, lab animals are often more expensive than human volunteers, even for risky studies… and if we were *really* unconcerned with ethics, we could press-gang prisoners or the like, which would be even cheaper), but the biological differences between animals and humans are such that many drugs which would be effective on humans are likely lethal to animals. We *know* that this use of animal models screens out countless drugs which could be used to help people. We *know* that it drastically slows down the pace of medical research.

            But we also know that the death rates among the human test subjects, to say nothing of their suffering, if we were to drop the prior animal screening would be horrifying. So… there are countless drugs, promising to various degrees, which could cure countless human ailments… which we can honestly say we *don’t know* if they’ll work. We just think it’s too risky to test them on people… for ethical reasons. We saw where that road went (don’t make me get into the details, please) and decided that we would be better than that.

            Part of being a good (and ethical) scientist is acknowledging (or doing your best to acknowledge) what you know, the limitations of what you know and the reasons for those limitations… and that is all I was doing.

            The idea that we should create a neanderthal or two (or even a city) to find out is *your* suggestion above, not mine. I was confining myself to the science and the facts of the matter.

            • No, it’s the suggestion of the scientist and the subject of the post. Your information and background regarding Neanderthal adaptability is useful perspective and I’m grateful for it, but it is tangential to the ethical issue, which is what interests me: do we use technology to create a version of human being whose reason for existence is scientific curiosity, and who is guaranteed to have the life of a terrarium exhibit at best, and a life of terror and confusion at worst? No, and even if it might work out better than that, it’s unethical to take the chance. Whether the Neanderthal is human, quasi-human, a parallel species, an inferior or superior species or any of the other options doesn’t change the conclusion.

              • No — as I said, it’s your suggestion _above_: “Then by all means, we should create one to find out. Actually, one isn’t a fair test, is it—a whole city of them would be fairer. Are you serious?”

                Yes, we would learn a whole lot about Neanderthals if we had a city of them. It’s even possible to argue that it’s a better and more ethical idea than just creating a single baby (they’d have peers, the problems with mate selection would be lessened, each individual would be subjected to far less scientific inquiry, etc.).

                But that’s beside the point. I didn’t suggest that we should create one. I discussed the _facts_ of this case, including our lack of knowledge. Yes, we lack a lot of knowledge regarding the neanderthals. Yes, this hare-brained scheme could potentially provide us with information to fill in some of the gaps. Yes, a successful creation would fill more (although, as I’ve noted below, this scheme is virtually guaranteed to fail… assuming that implementing it is actually Church’s intention, which gets into yet another set of issues).

                That doesn’t make the plan ethical. I wasn’t defending Church. I was addressing inaccuracies in your characterization of the case — nothing more and nothing less.

    • Well, if the woman wanted a flying monkey-baby…a legless baby that would be easy to carry around—an Australopithecus— a kid with antlers, so he could double as a moving coat rack—would it be ethical to give her one of those? I don’t see much of a difference, and no, it would not be ethical.

      • Isn’t this just the ick factor, though? Couldn’t you have made the same argument about the first IVF baby (it’s not the natural thing to do, so we shouldn’t do it)? You probably could have made a similar argument for the first baby created by IVF selected for certain traits. I don’t think that it would be cruel to a neanderthal just to bring him or her into existence.

        By the way, by your logic, wouldn’t having children in many situations violate Kant’s imperative? Many people have children for objectives other than solely for the benefit of the child.

        • Sure it would. The cases where a child has been conceived primarily to serve as a bone marrow donor for a child with cancer is an example.

          Eric, the problem is that a Neanderthal 1) would not be normal (he would ugly and physically grotesque by current standards 2) he would not be a normal child, but an exhibit and the object of study and experimentation from the beginning and 3)would be the object of constant public scrutiny and publicity for his entire life.

          It is pure Frankenstein. In this century, this is a sentient monster. How can you not think creating such is unethical?

          • Conceiving a child to serve as a bone marrow donor for another child is one of reason why one might have a child. I was thinking of more mundane reasons such as pleasing one’s parents, wanting to carry on the family name or just the joy that having a child brings to his or her parents.

            I share your revulsion to the idea of having creating a Neanderthal, but really because creating a Neanderthal seems icky, not because I believe it would be unethical to the Neanderthal. I reply to your objections as follows:

            (1) Just because a child would not be normal (e.g. would be considered ugly by others) is not a good reason not to have a child. Several decades ago, you could have made the same argument about interracial children, in that they were not considered normal and were discriminated against by others. Nowadays, interracial people are pretty much completely accepted (at least in the West). Who’s to say that Neanderthals will not be similarly accepted in the future (although, if the proposed Neanderthal baby ever runs for President, Americans will have to reconsider what is meant by “natural”-born citizen).

            (2) This criticism can be easily solved by not experimenting or studying the Neanderthal after he or or she is born. Just write a paper after his or her birth saying that it can be done and then leave the little guy or girl alone. When he or she turns 18, then, with consent, all of the relevant studies can be done.

            (3) I don’t think it is unethical to have a baby knowing that it will be the object of constant scrutiny and publicity for his or her entire life. If it was, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge could never ethically reproduce (nor could several A-list celebrities). Likewise, your criticism could equally apply to any baby who is the first to be conceived in a novel way (Louise Brown will always be known and famous for being the first “test tube baby”).

            • 1. The Neandrathal’s inherent and inarguable ugliness—if its human, its ugly, if not, it’s a sentient beast– would make it impossible to lead anything approaching a normal life. This isn’t a case in which a child will probably be ugly, it is a case in which one is setting out to have a deliberately ugly child, when one doesn’t have to. Nor is one battling prejudice. Believing someone is different because of bias can be countered with reason and familiarity; believing someone is different because they are, in fact, not entirely human, can’t be rebutted because its true.
              2. FOUL. The whole point of cloning an extinct species is for study. You can’t argue away an inseparable and essential feature of the unethical act to purify it. If the creature couldn’t be studied, then it wouldn’t exist.
              3. Again, you’re distorting the situation. A child who is an object of interest because of the parents or celebrity is very different from a child whose essential nature guarantees a lifetime in the spotlight, tracking, scrutiny and study.

              I’m not “revulsed” by the idea at all. From an intellectual standpoint, I’d love it, just like I love the idea of Jurassic Park. It’s just wrong to manufacture sentient beings for either amusement or scientific study. Where’s the “ick”?

              • 1. People are all different from each other. Reason and familiarity doesn’t change the fact that people are different from each other, it just means that we accept each others’ differences. What rational reason would there be for discriminating against a Neanderthal?

                By the way, no-one has ever seen a Neanderthal, so there is no way to say that a Neanderthal is likely to be ugly. Hypothesized depictions of Neanderthals do not make them look overly ugly. See http://smithsonianscience.org/2010/03/hall-of-human-origins/ for example. I wouldn’t say the guy is particularly ugly, though he might do well with a shave or a beard trim.

                2. A lot of scientists would be very happy to study an adult Neanderthal. If the Neanderthal consented, then the study could occur after the Neanderthal turned 18. Just leave the Neanderthal alone while he or she is young. Also, it would be of scientific interest to show that it is possible to create a Neanderthal, even if no further studies were performed. No FOUL at all.

                3. I fail to see the distinction. Some children of celebrities are guaranteed a lifetime in the spotlight, tracking, scrutiny and study.

                The “ick” is that the Neanderthal is created in an unnatural way. It also seems unnatural to have an extinct human subspecies brought back to life. Now that you say it, it really isn’t so icky.

  4. Agree with you completely on this one. By an interesting coincidence, I am currently reading a science fiction story where a corporate bigwig basically persuades his company to experiment with an organism that could literally exterminate humanity — more or less to see what develops from it.

    He is asked how their scientists could stand to take part in this experiment (which involved killing the 1.5 million population of an asteroid), and his response was “We modified our science team to remove ethical restraints. ”

    “You turned them into sociopaths.”

    I couldn’t help but think of your comment about “we can do this….but should we?”

  5. Another detail missed in the commentary: we *can’t* do this. Well… we can *try*, but the last time we tried bringing back an extinct subspecies through this sort of method, the “kid” (an ibex) immediately died of respiratory failure.

    The technology is horrendously immature to even *talk* about this sort of thing.

    • It’s immature until it works. Whether it can be done or not is consequentialism…who cares? It shouldn’t be done. Human beings shouldn’t be mutated for our amusement and without their consent, and semi-human sub-species shouldn’t be created to be living experiments and lifetime freaks. Easy ethics calls…or they should be.

      • Umm… no, at least not in the sense you use the term here. You use the term to refer to the excusing or condemning of actions after the fact on the basis of the actual consequences. I am talking about what he can reasonably expect if he goes through with his scheme.

        And yes, the consequences you can reasonably expect from an action are ethically relevant. Beyond the fact that a lot of the reasoning above focuses on the hypothetical consequences if he succeeds, beyond the fact that there are entire ethical systems based on this sort of analysis…

        Quick thought experiment: X is a doctor. X has a pill in his hand and a sick child in his office. Is it ethical to give the pill to the child?

        Obviously, this depends on what he expects to happen if the child takes the pill. The ethical discussion will be very different depending on whether he can expect the pill to save the child’s life or whether he can expect the pill to kill the child. In either case he could be wrong (e.g. if the pill is an antibiotic, it may not work or the child may be allergic unbeknownst to the well-intentioned doctor)… but his expectations — and his *reasonable* expectations — are highly relevant to the ethical analysis.

        So, when analyzing this case, we should probably be noting that the effort will almost certainly fail, that Church should know this, and that this means that he’s giving the prospective mother what will almost certainly be a stillborn baby at best… and should be *expecting to do so*.

        And he’s lying — or at least being deceptive — to the public in his attempts to find said would-be mother.

  6. To begin with, no human subjects committee or animal subjects committee I can think of would greenlight such an experiment. Second, I can’t believe that the NSF or NIH would agree to fund such a thing (although the recent CDC pronouncements on Obama’s gun proposals show an alarming politicization of science).

    Such a thing would not be permitted because the harm would greatly outweigh the benefits. The benefits of such an experiment (at this point) is merely to satisfy curiosity. There is no compelling need to know more about Neanderthals and such an experiment would not create a true Neanderthal, but a hybrid Neanderthal/human. The risks to the ‘adventurous’ female would be substantial. Acting as the surrogate for such a hybrid is unprecedented and the risk for a really bad immune response is very real. The biggest problem is that the stated goal of this experiment is to bring into this world a new type of sentient, reasoning life. If everything goes as hoped (and that is a long shot), this being will be subjected to a lifetime of study, worse than any zoo animal. It will be poked, prodded, and continually be the sole subject of numerous studies its entire life. This kind of treatment is unethical and is even worse than what is done to child celebrities.

    Something like this is most likely to happen somewhere in Asia where they have cutting edge facilities, a lot of money rolling around, and lax regulation. I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t at least tried to clone a human yet. It is a much easier experiment than the one that Church is proposing.

    • Yes, and thanks for reminding me of the other Jurassic Park issue. Those dinosuars weren’t really dinosaurs either—they were part frog. When Sam Neill says, “The DO move in herds!,” he’s jumping the gun. Frogasaurs move in herds. True Sauropods? He can’t say that for sure.

      • Knowing our luck, the hybrid child would probably have all of the best traits. Immense physical presence with a 21st century mind. I’m thinking along the lines of the movie “Prometheus” and the the engineers.

      • Maybe… but this specific case is a non-issue. It literally didn’t happen. George Church *isn’t* planning to do what your coverage and summary says he is.

        • No maybe about it. The ethical question involves the plan as it was reported. Nor do you know “it literally didn’t happen.” “I was mistranslated” is a classic dodge in such cases after comments attract criticism—maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t. I have my doubts, and there is no way for me to know whether he was quoted correctly or not. His recent quote “I’m certainly not advocating it,” Church said. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today” is pretty spooky. What’s there to talk about, if he knows its unethical? How much conversation is “No!”

              • And now that I’ve read it, no wonder people want to ban cloning! What a wildly irresponsible interview, and what an almost stereotypically unethical scientist. His essential attitude is—we wait til its legal, and then we do it. He talks about introducing a new species of human as “diversity” (or competition) as casually as an AKC official approving a new spaniel. (A bigger brain Neanderthal might help us when we have to leave the planet—what insulting baloney.) This guy was running off at the mouth, and his tone clearly indicates that he’s NOT misquoted, because he’s enthusiastic, and he evinces no genuine doubts about the ethics of the scenario he discusses at all. And he’s not especially interested in talking about the ethics of it, only the compliance problems. This is worse than “ick”, and he is arrogant and dangerous. I wonder how many like him are lurking out there? Lots, I’m sure.

              • Err… because it’s a transcript from the paper that actually conducted the interview, whereas the information you’ve been relying on has been a summary provided by a supermarket tabloid?

                • Foul—the information I relied upon was primarily the MIT Technology Review, which, if you were paying attention and not concentrating on snark, you can plainly see. If that’s a tabloid, your supermarket is pretty classy. And–er—the same point applies: if a German magazine can’t be trusted to get the quotes right in one language, there is no reason to trust it in any other, AND, having read the transcript, I see nothing that materially changes my thoughts about it. As I wrote above.

                  • Hmm. Point — that’s my error. I spent a while tracking down the origin of that characterization and confused the citation trail and apparently forgot which source you were citing during this.

                    That said, the claim that Church is actively looking for a woman to carry a Neanderthal hybrid baby appears to have originated with an article in the Daily Mail, a British supermarket tabloid ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2265402/Adventurous-human-woman-wanted-birth-Neanderthal-man-Harvard-professor.html ). The assorted other sources appear to have picked the information up second-hand (or third-hand, etc.) without checking the primary source — the Spiegel piece.

                    And if you *do* check it… the facts are distinctly different. Church didn’t say he’s looking to create a cloned Neanderthal; he said that he expects someone to do so within his lifetime and that it should be possible. Hell, he doesn’t even say it’s a good idea — he says that all he can (or is willing to) do is analyze what the consequences would be.

                    And of *course* he’s talking about diversity (or, more properly, biodiversity) and competition. He’s a *biologist*. He’s talking about the *biological* consequences of the matter, the *biology* of our species, and using *biological* terms (which both diversity and competition are) when doing so.

                    And yes, he mentioned — when asked specifically about the benefits of having Neanderthals around — that the evidence suggests that they might have been smarter than we are, or at least had a different way of thinking. He also mentioned that this means that it’s conceivable that they could help solve problems. This is… unsurprising.

                    I could go on, but… yeah. His conduct simply wasn’t what you’ve characterized it as.

                    • Correction, even to this: I found an earlier source than the Daily Mail article — a grossly unethical (and inaccurate) German summary piece from the Spiegel itself.

                    • I really don’t see how you can read the English interview and not see a grandstanding and arrogant jerk who sees nothing unethical in the proposition at all, as long as, you know, “the laws change.” I see no evidence that ethics—that is, right and wrong— is even a concern to him–he’s positively giddy about the possibilities. And he does not deal with the factor of creating a human hybrid for study purposes, and the ethics of the life such an individual will lead. He trivializes the enormity of what he’s talking about. Is he planning it, condoning it, wishing for it or cheering it on? Ethically, they are all wrong.

                    • Except the comment about laws changing is in the context of why he expects it to happen — the interviewer references the laws as a barrier to it being possible; he points out that the laws don’t prevent it everywhere and that the legislative obstacles to it happening can easily fall.

                      Similarly, you’re grossly mischaracterizing his statements throughout the interview.

                      And you’re right that he doesn’t deal with the “study purposes” ethical issue. He’s not *talking about* the ethics of it. He’s talking about the *factual* dimensions of the issue… and then there’s the fact that he’s not talking about creating such a hybrid for study purposes — he’s talking about creating such a hybrid *period*, along with the consequences of it being done.

                      As for him being “positively giddy about the possibilities” — note that the interviewer asked him specifically about what good could come of it… and carefully avoided asking about potential harms. Again, you’re reading things into the interview which simply aren’t there.

  7. “But there is nothing intrinsically unethical about cloning. The problem is that there are many theoretical applications of cloning that are monstrous (See: “The Island”), and too many scientists whose attitude is, “Why not?””

    1) I would assume that, as infinitesimally small as it is, even one strand of my DNA still counts as my “property”. No one gets to clone me without my consent. Otherwise they are abusing my person.

    2) Which leaves us with those who consent to have their DNA utilized to clone themselves. Hm….

    One is still creating an individual into a situation in which is not ideal. They weren’t conceived as some act of passion between two consenting and dedicated parents, and we already consider it unethical for unloving and undevoted parents to engage in conduct that brings new babies into the world…because unwanted babies are born to unethical parents.

    Additionally, the clone will never be perceived as a truly unique individual (even if they are), they’ll perpetually be in the “shadow” of their older self.

    I’m not so sure cloning isn’t intrinsically unethical.

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